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UPDATE: 3rd body found in rubble of West Reading chocolate factory explosion

WEST READING, Pa. — Rescuers recovered a third body Saturday in the rubble of a candy factory explosion in Berks County, officials said.

West Reading officials made the grim announcement around 9 p.m. after a day of hope spurred by an injured person found alive early in the day.

"Due to the severity of the blast and the time that has passed, the chance of finding survivors is decreasing rapidly," Fire Chief Chad Moyer said at the nighttime news conference.

  • The explosion happened just before 5 p.m Friday at the R.M. Palmer Co. plant
  • Eight people were taken to nearby Reading Hospital for treatment
  • A cause of the blast was not immediately given

Four people remain unaccounted for and several were injured in the blast at the R.M. Palmer Co. that rocked the close-knit borough both physically and in spirit.

Weary officials thanked the community for its marathon support and said rescue operations would continue through Saturday night.

'Silver lining'

Hours earlier, the discovery of a survivor gave hope to borough leaders and rescuers that others would be found alive. A dog searching through rubble helped locate the victim after the victim apparently called out, Mayor Samatha Kaag said.

"The silver lining in all this is someone was found alive, in rubble, and not knowing whether they were going to live or die," said borough council Vice President Philip Wert. "But fortunately, we found that person and they’re going to have a second chance."

Officials said they didn't have an update on that person's condition.

PEMA Communications Director Ruth Miller said the county’s initial incident report to PEMA made reference to a gas leak but authorities have not commented on a potential cause for the explosion. They said an investigation into the origin continues.

Gov. Josh Shapiro visited the scene Saturday, spoke with rescuers and pledged the support of state resources.

"As West Reading continues to confront this tragedy this morning, the entire Commonwealth of Pennsylvania stands with this community," Shapiro's office tweeted. "We are with you – and my administration is here to provide all the resources and support West Reading needs."

Borough Police Chief Wayne Holben said teams of rescuers were using canines and specialized equipment to look for signs of life.

Karen Long, who lives across the street from the chocolate-maker, said she heard and felt the blast just before 5 p.m. Friday — and it shook her entire house.

"It was just a tremendous blast — a tremendous, tremendous shake of the buildings and just debris in the sky everywhere," Long said. "And I was concerned because normally at this time of the day on a Friday the children are outside playing."

"A bunch of the people in the neighborhood have always worked for this factory," Long said. "And we have had family members that have worked for this factory. So they all kind of rushed to this area, concerned about their family members that were working there."

The explosion at 4:57 p.m. Friday sent a plume of black smoke into the air and resulted in the destruction of a building at the facility and damage to a neighboring building.

The chocolate company's roots in Berks County go back more than 70 years.

“It’s pretty leveled,” Mayor Kaag said Friday night of the explosion site.

“The building in the front, with the church and the apartments, the explosion was so big that it moved that building four feet forward."

Speculation of gas leak

Berks County fire crews as well as UGI, the gas utility, remained on the scene Saturday.

A UGI Utilities spokesperson said crews were brought in after damage from the blast led to the release of gas that was helping to feed the fire.

“We did not receive any calls regarding a gas leak or gas order prior to the incident, but we are cooperating with the investigation and part of that will be to check all our facilities in the vicinity,” UGI spokesperson Joseph Swope said Saturday.

Frank Gonzalez told the Associated Press that his sister, Diana Cedeno, was working at the plant at the time of the blast and was among the missing.

“It’s not good. It’s just stressful waiting, not knowing,” he told the AP, expressing frustration at what he perceived as a lack of communication from authorities about the search. “We keep reaching out, bugging, keeping her name alive just in case she is in there and says her name.”

He said his sister has two adult children, including a son who is deployed overseas. She has a side job decorating for parties and has also been studying for ministry at her church, he said.

Gonzalez said his son and nephew had also worked at the plant, but that his son had quit a few months ago “because he said he didn’t like the smell of the gas that was in there.” His son and nephew had complained about the smell to plant supervisors, who told them, "‘It’s all right. We got it. It’s being handled. Don’t worry about it,’” he said.

The mayor said it was too early to pinpoint a cause for the explosion.

"Unfortunately right now it’s too early to say," she said. "It’s pure speculation.”

Chocolate company issues statement

Holben, the police chief, said roads around the Second Avenue factory — not far off the main drag of Penn Street — will remain closed until at least 8 a.m. Monday.

R.M. Palmer Co. said in a statement late Saturday that everyone at the company was “devastated by the tragic events” and “focused on supporting our employees and their families.”

“We have lost close friends and colleagues, and our thoughts and prayers are with the families and friends of all who have been impacted,” the statement said.

The company said it was anxious to get in touch with its employees and their families. But its email, phones and other communication systems were down, and it was relying on first responders and disaster recovery organizations to provide information to affected families. The company said it would be “providing additional information and making contact with employees, impacted families, and the community as soon as possible.”

Another candy-maker, Bethlehem-based Just Born Inc., said it would help however it could.

"Our hearts are heavy for the community, families and fellow candy makers involved in this tragic accident," a Just Born statement said.

Tower Health spokeswoman Jessica Bezler said eight people were taken to Reading Hospital on Friday evening.

Two were admitted in fair condition and five were being treated and would be released, she said. One patient was transferred to another facility.

According to the company website, R.M. Palmer Co. employs 850 people and produces more than 500 products from its headquarters in West Reading. The company was founded in 1948 by Richard M. Palmer, a captain in the Army Air Force during World War II and a Lehigh University graduate.

Prayers through the night

A volunteer prayer group showed up at the scene late Friday into Saturday, with gold badges reading "chaplain" hanging on their necks. Edgardo Colon leads the group, and the wife of one of his friends went missing while working at the factory.

"We're here to serve," he said. "So we're trying to get the family some positive words," Colon said. "If they need a prayer, we're here. Food, or anything, we're here."

A younger member of the prayer group, sixth-grader Analia, said she didn't mind being up late and hopes her efforts help find the missing people.

"I'm here to pray for them," she said. "We're asking God to help find the people."

County officials extended sympathy and support for the West Reading community and rescuers.

"While our community is still grappling with the sobering reality of this incident, we have been encouraged by how quickly our residents have rallied together to surround West Reading with support," said the statement issued by the county's public information officer, Stephanie Weaver.

"We would like to thank and recognize our emergency personnel at the local, county and state levels, especially those who mobilized from outside of Berks County to assist."

Borough council's Wert said the building where the blast occurred was built in the 1950s or '60s. Emergency personnel were reviewing blueprints to help with the recovery effort.

The chocolate plant is part of the fabric of West Reading, the councilman said.

"They have been an upstanding member of the community," Wert said. "Every time we’ve reached out for donations, they’ve stood up to the challenge. It’s our duty to give back to them because they’ve given to us."

It wasn't immediately clear if all of the victims worked at the plant or if any nearby residents or bystanders were involved.

"I don’t want to speculate on that," Kaag said. "Out of respect, I don’t want to speculate on whom it may be or the conditions.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.